Sunday, November 22, 2009

One morning in school

One morning, two of my friends, Vivek and Sridhar, and I were walking to our computer lab at school. We were in the 11th standard then and coincidentally all the three of us had been in that school only for a few months. On the way, one student in the 12th whom Vivek had known earlier from his old school passed by us. Vivek smiled and said a ‘hi’. The senior did not respond and walked past us as if nothing had happened. Both Sridhar and I got into a fit of laughter. We were trying to pull Vivek’s legs by making fun of the incident that just happened. Vivek told something that moment, which has remained very close to me ever since. He said, ‘Naan chirichathu, athu ente mariyaada, aa aal chirikaathuthu aa aalude mariyaada’ (I smiled. That is how I show my moral uprightness. The other boy did not. That is how he shows his).

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Essentials of Hinduism

I had been interested in the teachings of Hinduism for some time but only had a scant knowledge about the religion. I was on the look out for a basic book on Hinduism, something not written to cater to the Western crowd, which I assumed would be over simplified. And also something not riddled with a lot of Sanskrit texts and their translations, which might put off a new student of Hinduism. I wanted a book written by some guru who was in one of the acknowledged schools of Vedic philosophy. After having read Swami Bhaskarananda’s Essentials of Hinduism, I believe I have found a book which touches upon almost all the major aspects of the Hindu culture. Though he is a disciple in the Ramakrishna order (believing in non-duality) he also writes in detail about the dual nature of reality.

One of the reasons I was not really interested in Hinduism was because, very unlike Christianity or Islam, we had so many scriptures and ancient texts. I did not know where to get started. I had listened to a few talks on the Bhagavat Gita and read a few chapters earlier, but I was not able to fit them into the bigger picture. I always wondered why our sages made understanding religion so difficult. Little did I know about the organisation of Vedic literature and the fact that there was something in it for every kind of person – those well versed in Sanskrit, those with little or no knowledge of the Vedas, and even to those who were uneducated (the Truths were conveyed to them through the stories of the Tantras and the two epics of Mahabharatam and Ramayanam).

In the book, Swami Bhaskarananda speaks at length about life and the Hindu society in general. Though he has quoted from ancient scriptures, most of what he has written about the stages of life, women, children, marriages, death, food and the Hindu ethics remain true even in our world today. In very simple language, he explains the various ways one can see God – right from the Nirguna Brahman (the Supreme Being without form, quality and attributes), to the more commonly revered Ishvars/ deities in Hinduism. Again we find two levels of worship which is prescribed in our scriptures. Those who can understand and relate to the ‘formless’ God can choose so, others who need some physical association with him, can choose fromm the thousands of deities we have, each of whom have qualities all of us need to emulate. The Advaita philosophy, where you see yourself as a part of the Reality itself, has a more atheist/ humanist view. In essence, there is something in Hinduism for atheists, agnostics, spiritual-ists and ritual-ists.

There are chapters in the book, explaining the Hindu thoughts on death, karma, reincarnations and predestination. These were concepts that always baffled me. I used to ask myself why we Hindus were so obsessed about death. I believe now that we have every reason to ponder about death, the common friend each one of us has, right from the time we are born. The Buddhists put it simply as ‘All beings tremble before danger; all fear death’. If there is some system that uproots this fear, why not learn about it? The explanations of these concepts, given by Swami ji in this book, can very easily be comprehended by even a novice to the field. I remember during one of the first Vedic Society meetings I attended here at Edinburgh I had asked why we study religion and put an effort to understand the scriptures and so on. I had been, like many of us, conditioned to think that we ought to get something out of what we do. Through Swami ji’s take on Realization and Moksha, I really feel that maybe there is something above all this that we see today. This will remain not-understood until we make an attempt to learn and accept.

This is what I have learnt from my very short experience in Hinduism that I have. If ever some Hindu talks about how not-so-good or complex the religion is - it is purely out of ignorance. Because he has not tried to understand it. I know this because I was one among them until a few months back. This book is a nice starting point for all of us to get a taste of what Hinduism has to offer. I was quite surprised at reading about what world thinkers had to say about Hinduism and the Indian culture, which is included in the book. For the people who still have doubts regarding Hinduism, I would suggest that you start with this section in the appendix. When such world renowned figures speak so much about Hinduism, shouldn't there be something in it that we have missed?

Saturday, October 03, 2009

The media in 'emergency' mode

There was a time one month back when there was not a news bulletin on the Indian TV channels which did not mention swine flu. It was at a time when the cases worldwide had plateaued. Let us put the whole issue into perspective.

6050 people have been affected with the swine flu in India out of which 173 died (as of 13 September 2009). Most of the people who have been infected are ones who either had been abroad or had been in contact with someone who had been abroad. In simply words, it was predominantly among the more affluent. And that is exactly the reason it managed to get such a proportion of prime time coverage in the media. The media houses catering to this stratum of the society went into ‘emergency’ mode.

I would have been happy with the media’s vociferous take on swine flu if they had not been turning a blind eye to the Indians dying every minute due to TB or to the 1250 Indians dying daily because of diarrhea-related diseases, both of which are very much curable. The media do not see such ‘uninteresting’ statistics.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Patience, flexibility, love, and the ability to soothe are some of the qualities we would very easily associate with our mothers. These are the same virtues we glorify during the nine days of Navarathri (Nava = nine, rathri = night) as nine different manifestations of the Universal Mother. The Universal Mother is commonly referred to as Durga (or Shakthi or Devi), which literally means the remover of the miseries of life. In the Hindu culture, God is looked upon as our Mother, and vice versa. ‘The first manifestation of God is the hand that rocks the cradle’, as Swami Vivekananda aptly puts it.

Navarathri is divided into sets of three days to honour three different aspects of the Mother. During the first three days, we pray to Durga (or Kali), who is the destroyer of all our impurities, our vices. Then for three days, the Mother is worshipped as Lakshmi, who bestows upon us spiritual wealth. The final three days are spent in worshipping Saraswati, the Goddess of wisdom.

According to the great Hindu scripture, the Ramayana, Lord Rama performed a Holy prayer to invoke the blessings of Durga Maa to ensure success in bringing back his wife Sita from Ravana who had abducted her. The day, in Ramayana, when Rama vanquishes Ravana is celebrated as Dusshera (also known as Vijayadashami), which is the day after the nine nights of worship. During the nine days many in India fast. Fasting is seen as one of the best methods to improve one’s self control and overcome one’s desires. The fast, which is performed in the name of Durga, is akin to the prayer by Lord Rama. On Vijayadashami, Ravana, who symbolises our vices and desires, is finally conquered.

A prayer for the Mother –

Ya devi sarva bhooteshu matru roopena samsthita
namastasyai namastasyai namastasyai namo namaha - Devi mahathmyam

Salutations to the divine mother,
Whose art manifest in every being's existence.
As mother, I worship thee, over and over and over again.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Letters from Edinburgh V

I have started getting used to spelling out my name whenever I call someone on the phone here. I had to do it so many times - with the British Airways, British Gas, British Telecom, Royal Bank of Scotland. A for alpha, N for number, U for up, P for Pakistan, and then NAMBIAR.

Spelling out 'Sainath Lakshminarayanan' for the Natwest bank was the best training I could get. I got so lost that evening. I could not get any word for L. L for ... for ... LOVE! Yes that is the only thing I got to say to that Natwest lady.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Letters from Edinburgh IV

The most noticeable structure that can be seen from my kitchen window is a church tower. It stands out from the large number of small houses that my neighbourhood is studded with.

One evening, I was watching the sun set, sipping some tea. The church clock’s bell rang, which caught my attention. I looked in its direction, expecting to see the old church tower. I could not see it that day. I thought my senses were failing me. I knew that the Edinburgh Council, which does not allow us to even change a broken window (that is how they ‘preserve’ their heritage), would never bring down a church tower.

It is then I observed something. There was a huge tree that had come in the way. I had never seen the tree earlier. Or had I? Maybe I had seen the church tower through the skeletal structure of the very same tree. That evening, dense green foliage stood in place of the life-less autumn tree.

Someone knocked at our door that evening. It was spring.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The blank slate

One of the things I had in my mind, even before leaving for Edinburgh, was to buy a cycle once I reached here. I had this Famous Five style ‘riding through the meadows’ picture in my mind which complemented my love for cycling.

When I reached here, I learnt that there is a bicycle recycling and cycling promotion charity called the Bike Station at Edinburgh. There, they take old and discarded bikes out of landfill, repair as many as they can, and put them back on the roads. Every Saturday, between 10 am and noon, they sell these refurbished cycles to people. I thought of going there to buy a second hand cycle (when a new cycle would cost greater than £150, second hand cycles can be bought for as less as £40).

I went there on three consecutive Saturdays. The first time I reached the place at 10:30 or so. There was a huge queue. I hadn’t foreseen the demand for second hand cycles, especially during the time of the year when a lot of new students like me had landed in the city. I stood in the queue for some time and then, realizing that there was no way I was going to get a bike that day, left. The next week, I went there early. That week the number of cycles they had to sell were very few and by the time my turn came, there weren’t any cycles left.

The third Saturday, I went even earlier, to make sure that I get a favourable place on the queue. For a change, I was in the first group that was allowed to enter the garage. It was a square room, with cycles kept along the walls. I kept looking at the price tag (the most important factor to be considered!) of the cycles along one side. I saw one for £55. It looked in good condition. I knew the cost was reasonable. But my mind said, ‘Check out the other bikes too. There might be something cheaper, better’. I went around the room looking at the other cycles kept. Did not find anything that suited my budget. By the time I came back for the £55 cycle, someone else had taken it. The Bike Station had taught me the first lesson I learnt in Edinburgh.

How many times in our lives have we kept things waiting for the proverbial sunnier day? We keep living with the want – the want of a better day. We seldom see the beauty of the blank slate given to us each morning.

A sad day

Today I felt sad. All I could see in our news channels was the tirade which was traded between L K Advani and Dr. Manmohan Singh. Ideological differences kept aside for a moment, I do not think that two Indians, who are as old as my grandparents, must share such sharp words. I yearn to see the respect they ought to have for each other. When such mature, responsible people begin to speak thus, I start losing hope.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Your vote counts!

I am writing this in urgency. We have another 4 days before our people go to poll booths around the country to vote for the first phase of the elections to the 15th Lok Sabha. Two experiences over the past few weeks have forced me to write something of this sort.
1. During a talk show in CNN IBN, which Rajdeep Sardesai hosted, one of the panellists, when talking about the middle class of West Bengal said, ‘The middle class of India is the most untrustworthy. More than half of them do not even come to vote.’(Not quoted verbatim).
2. Tarun Vijay (columnist for the Times of India and editor for an RSS weekly) spoke of the ‘English speaking and writing middle class’ as being ones who ‘discuss big issues, but do little; expecting others to make the changes’. (Again, this is the gist of an article he had written).

Now, if you are reading this message, you are a part of the ‘untrustworthy English speaking and writing middle class of India’.

I do not want the ‘middle class’ to prove these commentators wrong. But I want our people to get involved. Let’s make the choice today, which will define where we stand tomorrow. Let’s all go to the polling station on Election Day. Jai Hind!

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Letters from Edinburgh III

Parents taking their young children to their school in the morning is one scene I see almost everyday here. The children are normally jumping around; enthusiastic about going to school. There isn’t much to study during the first few years. Seeing them on their scooters, I am reminded of how the school going children of the same age group in India are. Back home, seen on the streets, are children walking unwillingly to school. They have a heavy bag on their shoulders (might be the reason for our lower average height when compared to people in the west!); shoulders drooping. The only time in a week we see them smile are on Fridays; that too on the condition that they do not have any test or exam scheduled for Monday. The children face the brunt of competition (for space in the school bus, to a window-seat in their class!) right from a very young age. This very efficiently kills creativity.

I am sure things are improving in India; our actions on this front might accelerate the change.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Letters from Edinburgh II

One of the first things I noticed about the people at Edinburgh, was the pace at which they walk. Edinburgh is a very small city, and we can go to almost any place here walking (if we have all the time in the world that is, which I seemed to have during the first couple of weeks here). The people here (I would not call them Scots, because we have a large influx of people from the other European countries) walk as though they are always in a hurry to get to some place. I had a difficult time walking on the pavements on the first few days. There were these constant stares we used to get (for walking the Indian way!) from people who almost always used to overtake us. One night, one lady even passed a remark (which would have been deemed racist if she wasn't as drunk as she was!) 'You Indians walk slow!'.

Now things are different. I don't know whether it is because I did not want to hear anything like what the lady said again, or it was because I started cycling more than walking. But today, the people seem to be slow (relatively!).

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Letters from Edinburgh I

I landed in London, on my way to Edinburgh, at around 6am, some time in the end of September. It was a Jet Airways flight from Bombay. The pilot was an Englishman. In the post-flight announcement he made, he said, ' … It is a warm, sunny day in London. The outside temperature is 8 degree Celsius...'. I laughed to myself as I was trying to figure out what I was jumping into.

Today I would say, 'Yes, that indeed is warm!'.